On July 14, 2022, President Biden nominated Justice Adrienne Nelson to the United States District Court for the District of Oregon to the seat vacated by Judge Michael Mosman. Justice Nelson currently serves on the Supreme Court of the State of Oregon and has extensive experience in public defense and on the bench. If confirmed, she would be the first Black woman to serve in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon.
Justice Nelson was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1967 and grew up in Arkansas. She was inspired to pursue justice after her mother successfully sued her high school for attempting to give the honor of valedictorian to a white student with a lower GPA than Justice Nelson. As a result of the lawsuit, and a proposed walk-out by students of color, Justice Nelson became the first Black valedictorian of her school. In college, she worked for the same attorney who advocated for her in high school, legendary civil rights attorney John W. Walker, and decided to attend law school. After earning her B.A. in English and Criminal Justice, summa cum laude, from the University of Arkansas in 1989, she graduated with her J.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in 1993.
After graduating law school, Justice Nelson moved to Oregon to be closer to her mother, who lived in Portland. Her long career in Oregon began as a public defender with Multnomah Defenders, Inc., a nonprofit public interest firm. There, she defended indigent public defendants in a wide array of criminal cases. In 1993, she moved to the law firm of Bennett, Hartman, Morris & Kaplan LLP where her clients ranged from labor unions to private businesses. She litigated a variety of civil cases, including employment law matters, personnel disputes, commercial cases, and family law. From 2004 to 2006, she served as a senior attorney in Student Legal and Mediation Services for Portland State University. In that position, she represented students at Portland State University, Oregon’s largest public university, in civil, criminal, and administrative matters.
In addition to her experience as an advocate, litigator, and mediator, Justice Nelson is also a professor. Between 2002 and 2005, she taught a course titled “Racism and the Law” at Northwestern School of Law and at Lewis and Clark College. The course examined the effect of racism on the development of law. Additionally, upon moving to Oregon in 1994, she educated herself about the history of race in the state and presented her findings at a major law firm. Justice Nelson also provided clients with advice on the creation of employee handbooks and personnel policies while in private practice. Additionally, she provided pro bono representation in the areas of family, employment, trust and estates. While in private practice she also conducted intakes for a local legal aid and provided pro bono legal advice to the Black United Fund of Oregon.
Justice Nelson became the second Black woman ever to sit as a judge in Oregon when she was appointed to the Multnomah County Circuit Court in 2006. In that position, she presided over both criminal and civil cases. In 2012, she also served as Presiding Judge of the Multnomah County Circuit Court Mental Health Court for five months during which she ensured compliance with mental health treatment, drug and alcohol treatment, and medication. In 2018, Justice Nelson was elevated to the Oregon Supreme Court by Gov. Katie Brown, making history as that court’s first Black justice and the first Black judge on any appellate court in Oregon. The following November, she was elected to serve for the next six-year term as an Associate Justice. The election was another historic first for Justice Nelson and the state of Oregon – it made her the first Black woman to be elected statewide.
Justice Nelson has authored key decisions for the Oregon Supreme Court, many of which address the due process rights of criminal defendants. For example, in State v. Rogers, the defendant was originally sentenced to death in 1989 for murder and had been resentenced three times following appeals. After the Oregon legislature narrowed the definition of aggravated murder in the state’s death penalty statute, his case reached the state supreme court. In an opinion authored by Justice Nelson, the Oregon Supreme Court vacated the defendant’s sentence and remanded the case for resentencing because the defendant’s crime no longer fit into the statutory definition of aggravated murder. Instead, the most severe sentence available for his crime was life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Justice Nelson also authored the opinion in State v. Hightower, a case in which a defendant was denied the opportunity to fire his attorney mid-trial. Years prior, the case had come before the Oregon Supreme Court, which originally sided with the defendant and granted him a new trial. In an extraordinary move, the trial court refused to comply with the state supreme court’s order and denied the defendant’s new trial request on new grounds. Justice Nelson wrote the court’s opinion, holding that, in the interest of predictability, consistency, efficiency, finality, and justice, the defendant was still entitled to a new trial despite the trial court’s alternative explanation for denying the defendant’s request to dismiss his lawyer.
In Gutale v. State, another case authored by Justice Nelson, the court held that the petitioner, a refugee from Somalia who had pled guilty to a misdemeanor, could pursue a claim of ineffective counsel after his lawyer failed to warn him that his guilty plea could impact his immigration status. The Oregon Supreme Court found that the petitioner was entitled to understand the consequences of his plea and, under Oregon law, that the trial court should have notified him that a plea could result in his deportation. Further, the Court allowed the petitioner to proceed with his case, despite filing after the statute of limitations had run, because he could not have reasonably filed the claim of ineffective counsel prior to his deportation proceedings.
Justice Nelson wrote a notable Oregon Supreme Court opinion concerning a landlord and tenant dispute during eviction proceedings. In Hickey v. Scott, the tenant filed a motion to dismiss an eviction proceeding because the amount stated on the termination notice was greater than the rent amount the trial court determined the tenant owed. The Oregon Supreme Court found in favor of the tenant because, under Oregon law, a valid termination notice must precisely and accurately state the amount of rent owed to the landlord. Otherwise, any eviction proceedings related to the termination notice would be invalid. The decision was hailed as a major victory for tenants’ rights.
As a Multnomah trial court judge, Justice Nelson decided a variety of cases, including ones addressing worker’s rights. In one such case, McMackin v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., No. 0904-05549 (Multnomah Cty. Cir. Ct.), a railroad worker sued Union Pacific under the Federal Employer Liability Act, the Railway Safety Act, and the Safety Appliance Act for an injury he received while on the job. While presiding over the case, Justice Nelson made several evidence rulings, such as prohibiting expert testimony regarding the speed and breaking of a train offered by Union Pacific due to lack of qualifications. Ultimately, the plaintiff won the negligence case and was awarded $1,795,227.
In Robinette v. SAIF, however, the Oregon Supreme Court held that a school custodian was not entitled to an increased amount of workers’ compensation after she incurred a workplace injury. In that case, the claimant injured her knee when she fell while on the job. She received knee surgery and compensation for her injury. After the claim was closed, the employee continued to struggle with her knee. A reevaluation awarded her more compensation for her now chronic condition but did not increase her compensation for her decreased mobility because a medical examination concluded that it was not related to her original workplace injury. The employee appealed this decision, but it was upheld by the Oregon Workers’ Compensation Board. In an opinion written by Justice Nelson, the Oregon Supreme Court agreed with the Workers’ Compensation Board, holding that each loss of use of a body part is considered separately to determine if the loss was due to the original work injury, and that here the Board reached the correct conclusion that no increase in compensation was required.
Medical Malpractice and Negligence
As a judge in the Multnomah County Circuit Court, Justice Nelson also handled complex medical malpractice and negligence cases. In Stephan v. Avamere Health Servs., No. Number 0611-11723 (Multnomah Cty. Cir. Ct), she presided over a trial addressing whether the treatment and care of an Alzheimer’s patient was negligent. The plaintiff passed away halfway through the case, and Judge Nelson helped the parties navigate the shifting of personal representative duties from the plaintiff’s son to her estate. Justice Nelson also made important rulings regarding what evidence could be admitted at trial, in which the jury found for the deceased plaintiff.
In Freitag v. Legacy Emanuel Hosp. & Health Ctr., No.0807-09471 (Multnomah Cty. Cir. Ct.), a medical malpractice case, a patient sued a nurse and hospital for the way the nurse placed her in bed, claiming that it caused surgical screws in her neck to loosen and require surgery. Justice Nelson presided over the pretrial proceedings and the trial, which lasted two weeks. While she denied the admission of insurance as evidence, Justice Nelson allowed the jury to see a simulated video of how the nurse placed the plaintiff in her bed. At the end of the trial, the jury entered a verdict for the defendant nurse.
Professional Activities and Accolades
Outside of the courtroom, Justice Nelson has a demonstrated record of service and a long history of leadership in her community. She has served as Chair of the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council and of the ABA Center for Diversity and Inclusion for the last two years. She is also the Oregon State Delegate to the ABA, among numerous other roles in the organization. A member of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, Justice Nelson serves on the Commission’s Justice Reinvestment Equity Advisory Committee and the Justice Reinvestment Grant Review Committee. She is also a member of the National Bar Assocation, where she was previously Legal Education Committee Chair, and has been heavily involved in the National Bar Association of Oregon. Justice Nelson also serves as a mentor to other Oregon lawyers in the New Lawyers Mentoring Program at the Oregon State Bar and the Oregon Women Lawyers Foundation Armonica Grant Mentor Program.
In 2022, Justice Nelson was honored with the Spirit of Excellence Award by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. She was also recognized by the University of Texas at Austin School of Law’s Thurgood Marshall Legal Society with the Loftus C. Carson II Trailblazer Award in 2019. A local chapter of the NAACP has created a scholarship in her name and in 2021, Adrienne Nelson High School, named for the Justice, opened in the North Clackamas School District.